The marquee in front of the Fine Arts Theatre in downtown Asheville claimed that Peaceful Warrior would be “life changing,” so believing in the concept of truth in advertising, I walked in and announced to the folks there that I had come to have my life changed — and that if this did not happen and I did not learn how to levitate to the top of a gas station (as I’d heard Nick Nolte does in the film), I was going to be sorely disappointed. Alas, I was sorely disappointed.
But I found Victor Salva’s film a good bit better than I had been led to suspect. Possibly, I was simply relieved to find a well-crafted, well-acted film and not another amateurish scattershot meditation like What the Bleep Do We Know? (2004). Setting aside questions of belief — for the record, I’m still where I was at the time of What the Bleep, which is to say between noncommittal and the far side of skeptical — Peaceful Warrior works surprisingly well as an engaging story with two strong central performances.
Those who raised their eyebrows over the film being directed by Victor Salva — thinking of him mostly for the Jeepers Creepers movies — might be surprised by the wisdom evidenced in hiring him to do Peaceful Warriors. Anyone who remembers the dying deer sequence from Salva’s Powder (1995) will be less so. His handling of the film is by and large merely an extension of the same humanistic mind-set evidenced in Powder — filtered through a quasi-mystical philosophy rather than a quasi-science-fiction one.
Peaceful Warrior is based on the supposedly true story set down by Dan Millman in his 1980 novel Way of the Peaceful Warrior, a sort of combined memoir, self-help opus that stresses “be here now” philosophical beliefs. Calling the work a novel neatly sidesteps any of its possible departures from reality, I suppose.
Scott Mechlowicz (Eurotrip) stars as Millman, a cocky, womanizing college gymnast, who is troubled by dreams in which his leg is literally shattered (OK, the effect looks like someone dumped a bag of Fritos on the floor). Somehow he finds himself drawn to a very strange service station where he meets an even stranger man (Nick Nolte), whom he dubs Socrates. Millman is understandably disconcerted to recognize Socrates’ mismatched shoes as being the same as the ones worn by the man who sweeps up the pieces of his shattered leg in the dream. Troubled and sensing something wrong with his life, Millman becomes Socrates’ student — something that will lead him on a very different path than the one he had mapped out for himself, or perhaps merely a more fulfilling variation on that path.
On the minus side, a lot of the dialogue is clunky, obvious and silly (“This is a service station. We offer service. There’s no higher purpose.”). The movie can’t quite navigate the fine line between drama and preaching a belief system, though it certainly makes a game effort. And the plot development is altogether too much in the mold of nearly every sports flick you care to name, culminating in the underdog-comes-from-behind cliche where the viewer is manipulated to cheer with Pavlovian precision.
What sets Peaceful Warrior apart from films it resembles stems in great part from the performances of Nolte and, to a lesser degree, Mechlowicz. Nolte carries with him such gravity — albeit, quietly amused gravity — that he makes an unbelievable role plausible. In the end, I didn’t care if such a person as Socrates existed or not, but I both hoped he might have and found it encouraging that someone could even have imagined his existence.
It helps that the film’s messages — stripped of their mystical underpinnings — are fairly simple, almost common sense ones. The idea that if you bother to look there is never “nothing going on” is a reasonable observation that occasionally bears remembering, as is the idea that the journey is more important than the destination. But therein lies a trap that the film cannot get around. Salva does a remarkable job of slyly making sure that there is indeed never “nothing going on,” but he can’t defeat the problem of the basic narrative requirement that the story has to have a destination in order to work as drama. As a result, the film succumbs to the very thing it philosophizes against, making it something of a failure by its own rules.
However, it’s an intriguing failure filled with images and symbolism that are sometimes hard to dismiss. You will not, however, learn how to levitate to the roof of a service station. In fact, the answer to that part of the story is a lemon — but you knew it would be, didn’t you? Rated PG-13 for sensuality, sex references and accident scenes.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke